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JOE SMITH,
RECORD MAN,
1928-2019

One of the most capable, gregarious and beloved record execs of all time, Joe Smith, died Monday at the age of 91. Like so many others in the music biz, we considered Joe family, and the sense of loss is palpable. He was an all-time great as an executive and as a human being.

Joe’s remarkable career included stints as President at three separate labels—Warner Bros., Elektra/Asylum and Capitol/EMI—as well as a short stint running the Recording Academy and manning a fledgling Warner-launched sports network. Smith worked with such notable artists as The Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Garth Brooks, among many others.

“Joe was the Don Rickles of the music business, loved by artists, executives and professionals,” attorney Donald Passman tells HITS. “One of my favorite stories was when an artist complained that his album wasn’t selling, Joe said, ‘It’s in all the stores.  Do you want me to hire people with uzi’s to stand there and make people buy it?’”

He eventually compiled a series of interviews and oral histories with artists ranging from Bob Dylan, Artie Shaw, Barbra Streisand and Bo Diddley to Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Mick Jagger, James Taylor and Ella Fitzgerald into Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music, originally published in 1988. Smith recently donated the original recordings to the Library of Congress for digitization, so that they could be shared with everyone. Regarded as a raconteur of the highest order, Smith was known as the toastmaster general of the record industry throughout his career, a man with a rich sense of humor about others, but mainly himself.

A jazz fan from the Boston suburb of Chelsea, Smith moved from local DJ to radio promotion to A&R exec at Warner Bros., his first significant signing being The Grateful Dead. (He took great pride in never being dosed with LSD by the band). Peter, Paul & Mary, The Kinks, Hendrix, Neil Young, Randy Newman,  Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Seals & Crofts would all be signed to Warner and Reprise as he worked his way up to becoming President in 1972. Three years later, he was promoted to Chairman of Elektra/Asylum, where he built on the label’s early success with Southern California singer-songwriters, generating massive hits from Eagles, Ronstadt, Queen and The Cars.

In HITS’ The History of the Music Biz: The Mike Sigman Interviews, published in 2016, Smith relayed an anecdote about his arrival at Elektra.

“When I got to Elektra, I met with everybody. You know, Geffen had been there, but he was at the beach most of the time, though he was a great record guy. So I asked them all, ‘What’s our album release this month?’ ‘We have no album.’ ‘What about next month?’ ‘Well, we think we’ve got two or three.’ I said, ‘You guys are all working here drawing your salaries, do we do anything?’

“So they said, ‘Well, we’ve got this record by this group Queen that lasts about six minutes called “Bohemian Rhapsody”.’ I listened to it and I said, ‘There’s a great side.’ I called the Elektra promotion guys and said, ‘We’re having a contest. First prize is you can keep your job. Second prize, you’re gone, because I want this fucking record on the radio.' " 

His ongoing relationships with key radio people helped. “I was an equal, and these guys would say, ‘He got out. He got a great job. How do we get out of this thing?’

“That was a wonderful experience. How could you not take a shot with this? Now, many Top 40-oriented stations wouldn’t have. But there were enough disc jockeys I called I knew would flip over it and lean on it.”

Smith retired from the business in 1983, returning four years later as Vice Chairman and CEO of the then-troubled Capitol-EMI after serving as president of NARAS for less than half a year. Under his stewardship, Raitt’s career was revived, MC Hammer became a superstar and the pop world discovered Garth Brooks. He retired from Capitol-EMI Music  in March 1993.

“Joe was one of the most important executives in the history of the music business, and one who made lasting contributions to Capitol’s legacy,” Capitol Chairman and CEO Steve Barnett said. “ I’m so glad I got to know Joe shortly after I arrived at Capitol; I’ll never forget how supportive and encouraging he was to all of us as we set out to rebuild the company that he had once helmed with a steady hand and great aplomb during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Joe was one of a kind and a true gentleman, and everyone at CMG joins me in sending condolences to his family and loved ones.”

From the early 1960s forward, Smith was also a regular emcee at industry events, one of the most knowledgeable and respected wine collectors in Hollywood and one of the Los Angeles Lakers’ most avid fans.

David Geffen posted on Facebook: "A legend in music...he was always fun, funny and a great guy!!!!"

A&R exec Tom Zutaut, who worked with Smith at Elektra and Capitol, posted on Facebook: “One of the best ever! He gave me the shot to sign MC [Hammer]… with a little help from his son Jeff! Joe is one of the good music biz guys. His presence is missed.”

Diane Warren tweeted: “Very sad to be losing such real music men like Joe Smith who didn’t give a fuck about data or algorithms, the only data was it made U fucking FEEL something. Make great music in Heaven Joe.”

Smith has been honored by the City of Hope and B'nai Brith, granted an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music and been inducted into the Doo Wop and Philadelphia Music Halls of Fame. He also received the Boston Music Lifetime Achievement Award. 

In a tweet, Magic Johnson wrote, “As one of the three men I owe my business career, Joe introduced me to fellow power player Michael Ovitz when I was playing for the Lakers.”

Here’s a snippet from a 2012 HITS interview that exemplifies Joe’s unrivaled gift of gab.

You had the good years.
Those were golden times. I watched it go from when our biggest acts were Peter, Paul and Mary and Allen Sherman. I think my most significant signing at Warner Bros. was The Grateful Dead. Because Warners was a pop-music label, the home of Frank Sinatra and Pet Clark… We were not even close to getting into the craziness that was just starting in San Francisco. I could’ve made deals with more groups—Janis Joplin, Country Joe—but my boss at the time, Mike Maitland, said, “Let’s see how we do with The Dead.” And I said, “It’ll be too late.” The only rock group that signed before us was The Jefferson Airplane to RCA.

The Dead thought you were a square at the time.
The Dead insisted I’d never understand their music until I dropped some acid with them. I wouldn’t drink or eat anything when I was near them. They dosed a lot of people. One Thanksgiving at the Fillmore in San Francisco, one of their many managers spiked the punch and 45 people went to the hospital.

What made you want to sign the Dead?
My good friend Tom Donohue, a major disc jockey in San Francisco, turned me on to them. He and Bobby Mitchell had gone there from Philly and wanted me to join them as the nighttime guy. He hipped me to what was going on up there. My wife and I were having dinner at Ernie’s, this expensive restaurant in San Francisco, me in my Bank of America suit and she in a black dress with pearls, and Donohue called from the Avalon Ballroom to tell me the band wanted to see me. We go there all dressed up and it’s like a Fellini movie, with the smell of pot wafting in the air, and that’s when I first met those guys. We made a deal about five days later. They wanted to work with Dave Hassinger, an engineer at RCA Studios on Sunset who had worked with The Stones, so I got him for that first album. It was the beginning of a crazy, eight-year relationship. I begged them to do tracks that were less than 15 minutes long. When they finally brought me Workingman’s Dead, they said, “This one’s for you.”

Smith’s wit and sense of history were on full display when he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015. 

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